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Hanging With Gibbons, or How I Spent My 2019 Winter Break

I hate the holidays. I suppose I always have. It is not a joyful time of year for me. Add the fact that my birthday is four days before Christmas and the feeling is exponentially intensified. Mostly, I could never celebrate my birthday on my birthday – or anytime near – due to holiday events and festivities. When I was younger and exchanged gifts with friends, inevitably a few friends would combine my birthday and Christmas gift and then exchange gifts with other friends, thereby diluting my birthday even further.

A few years ago, I decided to cancel my celebration of the holidays. I started volunteering at an animal sanctuary over the holidays and I have never been happier. The first few years, I volunteered at Save the Chimps (STC), a fabulous chimpanzee sanctuary located in Fort Pierce, Florida. Another year, I stayed home and volunteered at Our Companions Animal Rescue, a local dog and cat sanctuary to whose news magazine I submit articles. That was also great, but I still had to endure winter and a lot of downtime.

While I love the chimps at STC and the rescues at Our Companions, this year I wanted to volunteer a place that was warmer than home and within driving distance. Plane travel over the holidays is rarely enjoyable. I looked to my Facebook feed and found the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), a gibbon sanctuary located in Summerville, South Carolina, right outside of Charleston. I contacted the sanctuary and they said they would be happy to have me there for the holidays.

“Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.”
~Elizabeth Andrew

I arrived in South Carolina on December 22 and started volunteering on December 23. I was enchanted from the very first time I heard the gibbons singing to each other.

Click the link below to listen to the gibbons’ song:


That first day, Shala, the Sanctuary Director, took me on a tour to meet the gibbons, and I was enthralled. Each subsequent day, I fell a little more in love with the amazing gibbons who call IPPL their home.


Hello there!

The Facts About Gibbons

Gibbons live in tropical and subtropical rainforests in India, Bangladesh, China, and Indonesia. They have long arms and strong legs and are arboreal – meaning they live in the tree canopy. Following are some more fun facts about gibbons:

  • Gibbons are territorial, monogamous and generally live in bonded pairs.
  • They are part of the ape family but classified as lesser apes because they are physically smaller than the great apes.
  • Gibbons mostly move through the trees by brachiation – swinging through the trees by their long arms. They can move at speeds up to 34 miles per hour.
Val brachiating through his enclosure – look at him go!
  • If they do “walk”, they are bi-pedal.
  • Gibbons are not able to swim which keeps them isolated on some islands.
  • Females are the head of the family group and gestate for approximately seven months and usually only have one offspring at a time.
  • Gibbons usually stand about three feet tall and weigh between 10-20 pounds.
  • They are mostly covered in light-colored, ashy or tan hair to very dark brown or black hair. Some have a band of white hair surrounding their face.
  • Gibbons do not make sleeping nests like other apes and generally sleep upright.
  • They are omnivores but prefer mainly fresh fruit.
  • Gibbons modulate their vocalizations, making it sound like they’re singing. The singing is used to communicate and protect their territory. Different gibbon species make different vocalizations.
  • There are 20 species of gibbons. Unfortunately, all are threatened by extinction due to palm oil production, logging, and the illegal pet trade.

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”
~Winston Churchill

The International Primate Protection League (IPPL)

Dr. Shirley McGreal

IPPL was founded in 1973 by Dr. Shirley McGreal when she became concerned about primates being captured, transported, and exploited. She has worked tirelessly to protect all primates, both big and small. Some of Dr. McGreal’s successes include:

  • Founding a gibbon sanctuary in 1977;
  • Publishing IPPL News and being recognized by the BBC as one of the world’s best wildlife publications;
  • Exposing and closing down many smugglers’ networks that were illegally shipping primates from Asia to the West;
  • Uncovering gruesome radiation experiments on rhesus monkeys and numerous inhumane medical and biological warfare research experiments on primates;
  • Lobbying worldwide governments to ban the practice of wildlife trafficking;
  • Fundraising for numerous worldwide primate sanctuaries;
  • Investigating the conditions of primates in zoos and other entertainment venues;
  • Rescuing and providing shelter to gibbons at IPPL headquarters in South Carolina.

Dr. McGreal was presented with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her “services to the protection of primates” in2008 and has also received numerous letters from Prince Phillip regarding her service to primates.


Sanctuary Life

Currently, 34 gibbons who call IPPL home. The sanctuary is located in Summerville, South Carolina, about a half-hour northwest of Charleston. It is set on 37 acres in a rural area of town and is surrounded by trees and land which act as a buffer between the gibbons and the local, human residents. There are 10 gibbon houses that are hurricane-proof and climate-controlled. Each house also has a television to provide enrichment when they cannot venture outside. Numerous outdoor enclosures that are attached to the houses by a series of aerial walkways that can be used to move the gibbons with less stress and no anesthesia.

All but one of the gibbons are members of the white-handed gibbon species. There is one yellow-cheeked crested gibbon, Tong aka Tiggy, which I must admit, quickly became one of my favorites. Not only does she look different from the other gibbons but her vocalizations are very different as well. Other favorites included Maynard, Val, Spanky, and Gideon, though they all had such unique personalities I feel I would equally love them all if I were able to stay longer.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

As most of the gibbons were born in captivity and never learned ape behaviors from their parents, they would never be able to survive in the wild. They are protected and loved at the sanctuary – a much better fate than so many others. Many of the gibbons do live in pairs, however, some bachelors who have learned to co-exist peacefully – to a certain extent.

Each morning, the gibbons wake up and are let out of their houses into their enclosures where they can brachiate, climb, and observe their surroundings. Their first meal of the day consists of about a pound of vegetables. The gibbons prefer fruits but need the nutrients of the vegetables to stay healthy. Feeding them their vegetables in the morning ensures they will be eaten when the gibbons wake up hungry.

At lunch, the gibbons get approximately one pound of mixed fruits. These are their preferred foods but gibbons are rather fastidious – they do not like to get dirty. If a piece of food is too sticky, they will drop it immediately.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss

The gibbons go to bed when it starts to get dark. Night rounds consist of walking throughout the sanctuary, picking up the food containers from each enclosure, ensuring the gibbons are locked inside their enclosure, and giving them a peeled banana for dinner. Sometimes the gibbons are stubborn and need to be enticed into their enclosure but it is for their health and safety. The temperature can drop to freezing and that would not be good for their well-being.

A Typical Day for a Caregiver

A caregiver’s job is never done. Besides preparing the meals and feeding the gibbons, caregivers need to ensure that they receive required medicines, monitor their poop output, ascertain that they are eating sufficiently, and that the enclosures are cleaned, both inside and out. There is also veterinary care to provide regular physicals and dental examinations.

As a volunteer, I frequently hosed down the outside enclosures, often closely supervised by my new gibbon friends. They would chat with me and show off by swinging acrobatically throughout their enclosure. Normally, the thought of traipsing around outside, unwinding hoses, and spraying food and feces out of an enclosure, and rewinding up the hoses would sound like a distasteful job to me, but I must confess, I relished the opportunity to be close to the gibbons. Hearing the gibbons sing and watching their interactions was peaceful and joyous. I left the sanctuary after ten days feeling sore but also entirely relaxed and serene.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” –Anne Frank

Some of the gibbons are playful and some are very friendly. As a volunteer, I was cautioned against any physical contact with a gibbon unless accompanied by one of the staff. The friendlier gibbons would press their backs against the enclosure and look at you beseechingly for a back scratch. Some would huff and puff at you if you didn’t scratch them as much as they wanted. One of the gibbons liked to have his feet held. I witnessed the playfulness and sneakiness of the gibbons – one pulled a Santa hat off a caregiver on Christmas day and tried to wear it, eat it, and tear it up before dropping it in a puddle and another would grab for the sanctuary director’s raincoat when she was passing out dried fruit snacks.

One of my favorite activities was helping with enrichment for the gibbons. One day we made and delivered popcorn which most of the gibbons enjoyed. We tried jell-0 another day molded into holiday shapes but that didn’t go over as well. The stickiness of the Jell-O was a definite turn off to some of the gibbons. Something they all seemed to enjoy was dried fruit which can be donated to them through Dried mangoes appeared to be a particular favorite. Other types of enrichment they receive include PVC pipes filled with treats, mirrors, and stuffed animals.

Other jobs that must be attended to at the sanctuary such as picking up and sorting through food deliveries, groundskeeping, and general maintenance.  The sanctuary is not open to the public but there are member days when members can come and listen to an expert give a talk about primates and meet the gibbons.

How You Can Help IPPL

Are you intrigued yet by IPPL? Do you want to help them and their mission? What can you do?

You will not regret one single moment you volunteer at IPPL nor anything you provide for the gibbons. Explore IPPL’s website and Meet the Gibbons. Follow them on Facebook. You will soon find yourself beguiled by the amazing lesser apes. I know that I will be visiting IPPL to volunteer as often as I can and I hope to meet you there as well!

I forgot to mention…there are also six otters in residence at the sanctuary. Otters and gibbons – how nice!


  1. Diane Koosed

    Loved reading this and vicariously experiencing this volunteer work. I have cherished every moment I’ve spent as a member/visitor/sometimes helper at IPPL.

    • Tammy Wunsch
      Tammy Wunsch

      Hi Diane,
      I had such a great time. The gibbons’ song is now my ringtone. 🙂 I can’t wait to go back.

  2. Emil Goyco

    This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something which helped me. Thank you!

    • Tammy Wunsch
      Tammy Wunsch

      I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Have a great day!

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  4. Mackenzie

    Stunning story there. What happened after? Take care!

  5. Katie

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